Gustavo Menezes tamed the elements for a superb second-place finish with Rebellion Racing at Spa-Francorchamps last weekend, as the penultimate round of the fiercely-disputed 2018/19 FIA World Endurance Championship quite literally played host to four seasons in one day.
Nestled deep in the Ardennes forest and renowned as arguably the world’s greatest drivers’ circuit, Belgian Grand Prix venue Spa is one of the oldest racetracks in existence, dating all the way back to 1922 – and it always generates drama.
Regarded as the traditional dress rehearsal for next month’s legendary Le Mans 24 Hours – the pinnacle of the FIA WEC campaign and inaugural ‘Super Season’ finale – the 6 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps is invariably one of the most challenging races on the calendar. And last weekend, the weather threw an extra curve ball into the mix.
Menezes is no stranger to success at Spa, having sped to pole position in the FIA Formula 3 European Championship in 2014 – outperforming then team-mate and current Formula 1 superstar Max Verstappen along the way – and victory in FIA WEC’s LMP2 class in 2016. The talented young American similarly reached the rostrum there on his debut in the headlining LMP1 category this time last year, and he was immediately on the pace on his return 12 months on.
The fastest of the Rebellion sextet by almost a full second in opening free practice behind the wheel of the No.3 car, Menezes replicated that form in a rain-affected qualifying session, as he and Thomas Laurent joined forces to put the leading Rebellion-Gibson R-13 prototype fourth on the grid in the high-calibre field.
In front of a sizeable trackside crowd the following day, Laurent held his ground against ex-F1 driver Stoffel Vandoorne at the start to hang onto fourth place, but the advent of snow precipitated a swift switch to wet-weather tyres. That early decision proved to be a judicious one and elevated the Rebellion into third, behind only the all-conquering Toyotas and comfortably clear of the next-best non-hybrid entrant.
The first of four safety car interruptions – prompted by deteriorating visibility – closed the pack up again at around the half-hour mark, before the sun made a welcome re-appearance. When Menezes took over behind the wheel, he found himself down in fifth position, but the highly-rated Santa Monica, California native wasted little time in overhauling former FIA WEC World Champion and outright Le Mans winner Neel Jani in the sister car and chasing down SMP Racing’s Vandoorne for the final podium spot.
On-track at the same time as Fernando Alonso in the race-winning Toyota, Menezes even outpaced the two-time F1 World Champion on occasion, and the tussle for third became a scrap for second when the other Toyota peeled into the pits at half-distance with hybrid sensor issues.
The 2016 FIA WEC LMP2 Champion, Le Mans class-winner and ‘Revelation of the Year’ then handed over to Nathanaël Berthon, with the Frenchman and compatriot Laurent continuing the good work as they artfully managed further safety car interventions for heavy rain and hail. Indeed, the latter caught, passed and pulled as much as 20 seconds away from the SMP Racing entry before the fourth and final neutralisation wiped out that hard-earned advantage.
There were only 15 minutes left on the clock when the race re-started, with the Rebellion’s margin in the duel for the runner-up spoils reduced to less than a second, but Laurent had extended that gap to just over 6.5 seconds when the action was eventually red-flagged with 11 minutes to go as the weather closed in once again.
Coming home two laps ahead of the sister R-13 at the end of an impressively error-free run, the trio’s fourth podium finish from seven starts this season consolidated Menezes’ third position in the World Championship standings in endurance racing’s premier global series, with only the jewel in the crown now remaining – the 87th edition of the world’s most famous round-the-clock race on 15/16 June…
“Well that was all a bit crazy!” reflected the 24-year-old Williams-Harfield Sports Group protégé, a former winner of the coveted Jim Russell Driver Scholarship Award. “Even by Spa standards, it was pretty insane. We had sun, rain, hail and snow – sometimes all at once! That certainly kept everybody on their toes…
“We began the weekend on the back foot a little, and it took us until the third practice session to get the Rebellion fully dialled in but in qualifying, the R-13 was perfect – right where we needed it to be. Thomas [Laurent] then made a good start in the race and braved it out through Eau Rouge for the first time, and at one point we even split the Toyotas early on after one of them had a slow pit-stop.
“Thankfully, I wasn’t out there in the worst of the weather; I got in as the track was transitioning from wet tyres to intermediates and eventually slicks, and we timed the switch just right. The No.3 car felt incredible – really well-balanced – and while the SMP was clearly very quick, I knew we had a chance to beat them and kept chipping away.
“I was 40 seconds behind at the beginning of my stint, but by putting in consistent laps and making up time through the traffic, I had more than halved that gap by the time I handed over to Nat [Berthon], who like Thomas did a great job in pretty brutal conditions – they both said they could barely see a thing at times. There were cars spinning off left, right and centre but we kept our cool and made no mistakes to bring it home in second place.
“I won’t lie, I wasn’t sorry to see the red flag towards the end – it was definitely the right call. It was a relief to welcome the car back in one piece, and after what was unquestionably one of the toughest races of my career, the podium champagne never tasted so good!
“There’s just one more to go now this season – the big one – and whilst we still have some work to do on the technical side to refine the R-13 and extract a bit more speed between here and Le Mans, motivation is sky-high and we are determined to sign off the season in style!”